Why Obama has slipped in Wisconsin

Why has President Obama slipped so far so fast in Wisconsin?

“In no battleground state has Obama lost more ground in four years than Wisconsin,” which he carried by a stunning 13.9% in 2008, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Oct. 23.

Obama’s lead in Wisconsin polling now averages slightly less than three percentage points ahead of Romney.

In contrast, in Ohio-- a state where the auto bailout preserved an estimated 875,000 jobs—“Obama’s stability in the polls has become the linchpin of his electoral strategy,” notes Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel.

So what accounts for the huge drop in Obama’s standing in Wisconsin relative to Ohio?

One plausible explanation: Obama’s Auto Task Force effectively side-swiped southeastern Wisconsin.

The Task Force allowed two major auto plants to close and build up their operations in Mexico even while the auto firms were being bailed out with $92.7 billion in taxpayer funds.

Dominated by Wall Streeters like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and banker Steven Rattner who support job-destroying “free trade” deals like NAFTA, the Auto Task Force permitted Chrysler to close its Kenosha plan and move 850 jobs to a new engine plant in Saltillo, Mexico.

In nearby Janesville, General Motors shut down its giant plant employing 2,800 just before Christmas in 2008, while keeping open a plant with an identical product line in Silao, Mexico, where wages run about one-tenth of those in Janesville. The total job loss in the Janesville area is estimated at about 11,000, and the average wage has fallen by more than $4 an hour.

But thanks to the taxpayer bailout, GM has recovered strongly from its near-death experience and is now planning to invest $200 million more in Silao to produce some new small–truck lines, according to Automotive News.

The devastating blows to Janesville and Kenosha were not inevitable, but the result of the Obama Administration’s counter-productive, anti-democratic philosophy dictating that the public should have no voice in crucial investment decisions even when public dollars are being utilized.

As Louis Uchitelle, a business columnist for the New York Times, noted, the Administration "appears to accept the proposition that to return to profitability as quickly as possible, GM must import a significant percentage of cars from its plants in low-wage countries, like Mexico and China, or low-cost countries, like Japan."

The final version of GM's recovery plan—closely tailored to the demands of the Task Force—called for an enormous 98-percent increase in autos produced in Mexico, China, South Korea, and Japan for the U.S. market. Public dollars were thus used, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 80 years, to destroy jobs in the US.

Perhaps the Auto Task Force’s appalling failures served to undermine the enthusiasm of blue-collar workers on Election Day in 2010, when voting dropped from 78% in 2008 to 59% in Rock County, where Janesville is located, and from 65% to 40% in Kenosha. Declines in non-presidential years are common, but these especially sharp drops severely harmed Democratic candidates, such as progressive Sen. Russ Feingold.

President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry was certainly the right step to take, and helped to preserve three million jobs and an important part of our industrial base. But the failure of Obama and his elitist Task Force to protect the interests of American workers and communities was shameful, and might still diminish enthusiasm for President Obama on Nov. 6 in Wisconsin.

One final note: Paul Ryan has clumsily sought to blame Obama for GM’s decision in June 2008 to shut the plant, seven months before he became president, a lie for which Ryan has been widely castigated. So what was Ryan’s own “solution” for the shutdown? Rather than demanding that the Task Force insist that GM reopen the plant in exchange for the bailout, Ryan actually suggested leveling the huge facility and turning it into a Superfund site. Moreover, when Chrysler suddenly decided to move the Kenosha engine operation to Mexico, Ryan was entirely AWOL during the determined struggle by United Auto Workers Local 72 and community leaders to save jobs here.

Roger Bybee is a freelance labor reporter who writes frequently for The Progressive, In These Times, and Z magazine. He wrote the cover story "The Truth About Paul Ryan" for The Progressive in March 2011.